While recently kid-free on a plane, I was re-reading Building the Cycling City by Melissa Bruntlett & Chris Bruntlett. In this uninterrupted child-free state, I was completely enthralled and inspired by a section on infrastructure planning from the perspective of Mirjam Borsboom of the Dutch Cycling Embassy and founder of Movida Transport Solutions, whereby she “generally recommends three things to begin with: roundabouts, a network approach, and a ‘back streets’ principle. The latter refers to shifting bike routes off main arterials with heavy traffic volumes and onto adjacent side streets…” (p. 75).
This really struck a chord with me, likely because I have had the concept of bicycle boulevards on my mind for almost a year now. In all honesty, I’ve been trying to teach myself to fall in love with this idea because it was feeling like that was the only way to progress in our city after several failed attempts to get separated infrastructure installed on main streets around Calgary. And while Calgary had blazed the way with our downtown cycle track network shortly after I moved back to the city, other cities inspired by our gumption are now leapfrogging us and moving far ahead.
I was trying to get cozy with the idea that bicycle boulevards are better than nothing. But that’s not entirely true and a rather negative perspective on it because bicycle boulevards truly are something and something good.
But, first off, the jargon. I am going to primarily use the National Association of Transportation Officials (NACTO) infrastructure lingo as outlined in their Urban Bikeway Design Guide. These terms are not necessarily consistent across Canada or the USA, nor worldwide. As NACTO points out, it is useful for cities to come up with their own branding. But this is what I mean when I say…
User friendliness ratings
- Triple A Network : All Ages and Abilities. Sometimes referred to as “8 to 80”, meaning an 8 year old child through to an 80 year old person can safely travel this route or network.
- Five A Network: All Ages, All Abilities, All the time. The latter is achieved with effective snow and ice control (SNIC) in climates where that is relevant, plus adequate lighting could be considered here.
- Ski hill analogy: Networks are only as good as they are connected, not just to usable locations, like grocery stores, but with respect to user level. If you were a beginner downhill skiing on a green run the ski resort would never dump you out at a triple black diamond, they’d always give you the option of staying on a green (or, at worst, an easy blue).
- Cycle track: A one- or two-way lane for bikes (and other mobility devices, depending on the jurisdiction) on a major arterial. Separated from cars by means of using a barrier such as parked cars, flower planters, jersey barriers, or at bare minimum flexiposts. Can be AAA or AAAAA, younger children will likely require guidance as there are still intersections to navigate.
- Painted bike lane: Ideally a painted lane at least protected by a row of parked cars, i.e. located between the curb and parking lane, with a painted door zone buffer, too. In practice, often a painted lane with no true separation from traffic: just paint. Hard to make AAA, but doable. Challenges with AAAAA as these lanes either a) get used for snow storage or b) cities don’t have equipment narrow enough to plough the lane if protected by parked cars (but both of those issues just require behaviour/perspective modifications).
- Shared use lane: Essentially an often fairly busy road with “sharrow” markings, indicating where a rider should position themselves. Likely other signs indicating that it is a bike route and that users are to “share the road”. Essentially just paint mixed with a bit of way-finding. Rarely any other accommodations, such as speed reduction. Never AAA unless volumes are extremely low and there is a significant speed reduction in place. Only AAAAA if meet AAA specs and have priority ploughing during snow events.
- Bicycle Boulevard: Local neighbourhood routes that often run parallel to busy arterials, but not always as they can also provide local connections within a community, too. The key here is that these are low(er) volume routes purposely made difficult to travel by car; bicycles can take a direct “as the crow flies” kind of route, but cars will hit diverters and dead ends that are only permeable to bicycles. This design encourages lower speeds and local car traffic only. If done well, these can easily be AAA; AAAAA can require creative snow removal solutions as dead-ends are difficult for typical North American ploughs.
- Pathways: Off-street routes that are often multi-use, for cyclists, pedestrians, skateboards, scooters, etc. Ideally they connect to local bicycle boulevards and cycle tracks. Extremely easy-to-use car free infrastructure: AAA. Relatively simple to clear in winter with ploughs and/or brushes: AAAAA. The only caveat for multi-use pathways is that when they get busy, it is ideal to separate cyclists from slower users to avoid incidents and accidents. Longer pathways are often referred to as ‘greenways’, but the term ‘greenways’ is also frequently used as a term for bicycle boulevards (it’s what Vancouver used to call what they now call ‘bikeways’).
What is a bicycle boulevard?
A bicycle boulevard is what Borsboom calls a “back streets” principle and is often a route that runs parallel to a major artery in a city, often just one block off of it. Traffic calming principles are then applied resulting in the creation of a straight route for bicycles (and pedestrians, for that matter), but make it next to impossible for automobiles to follow the same route. Streets in this area simply become local traffic only, where they are essentially guests of the road network either just beginning or ending their trip.
My experience with bicycle boulevards
I lived in Vancouver proper for about three and a half years about a decade ago. This is where I became a committed year round commuter, whereas before I mostly used the bike for recreation (i.e. mountain biking) and some commuting in fair weather.
When we moved there, we scoffed at Vancouver’s bikeability, chalking it up to mostly being a bunch of quiet streets dubbed as cycling infrastructure so Vancouver could call itself green. (In fact those routes were then called ‘greenways’.) We were so naïve and quickly learned that we were also seriously wrong.
We lived across the street from the Jericho Garrison, the westernmost point of the community of Kits(ilano) and I taught at a school in far East Vancouver (my husband took the route slightly further into adjacent Burnaby). I got to that school entirely on bicycle boulevards. And it was rad, all 14 km of it (~28 km round trip). Overall, it worked really, really well. There were some sketchy sections, like trying to cross Fraser Street, but there is a half-signal there now and I know that other improvements have been made over the years (it has been a decade since I rode that route consistently).
My next job was in Stanley Park and I got there on a combination of bicycle boulevards, cycle tracks, and off-street pathways from that same home. When we moved to East Van it was the year they put in the first cycle tracks downtown and I was privileged to again have a route that consisted entirely of bicycle boulevards (Adanac) and protected cycle tracks. I rode that last route throughout my whole pregnancy with my now eight year-old in spite of the heightened awareness for safety that often comes with pregnancy. I would cargo bike it now with my two kids, and I am pretty confident to write that I would ride with them on their own two wheels, too.
Based on my overwhelmingly positive experiences, bike boulevards earned a relatively high ranking when it comes to comfort level, for me, as an experienced female cyclist who rides with young children.
We definitely have on street routes that are called Blue Sign Routes. They have a sign, it’s blue. These roads usually have “share the road” signs, too. Sometimes they have sharrows, sometimes not. Some have roundabouts instead of stop signs. In my experience, they rarely (if ever) have reduced speeds even though you are expected to interact with vehicular traffic on your bike. We now have a safe-passing by-law to help with this. Our City is also going to be reducing our default speed limit (which is currently 50 kph) to 30 or 40 kph to help more, then once that key speed reduction piece is in play design improvements can follow. ‘Can’ because the speeds will be in place to finally allow for such things as speed humps (which aren’t compatible with a 50 kph speed zone from what I understand), but also because it will cost a lot of money to implement design changes from what I can gather and our political priorities don’t seem to be ready to support policy with dollars, yet.
I am not confident to name a Blue Sign Route in Calgary that is truly a bicycle boulevard. (Although I am more than happy to be proven wrong; feel free to comment below.) I think that we often abuse the Blue Sign Route and befuddle the user because the user friendliness of our Blue Sign Routes is extremely unpredictable and can only be determined through experience.
A key example of this inconsistency is 5th Street SW, whereby its cycle track ends at 17th Avenue SW and then riders are forced to share the road on a Blue Sign Route with no accommodations whatsoever — not even sharrows, just “share the road” signs, not that sharrows work anyway — until they reach the off-street Elbow River Pathway network nine blocks to the south. Cycling goes from a Green/Blue run in the cycle tracks, to a triple Black Diamond before you hit the cat track or easy-peasy Green run again on the pathway. We mostly slapped up a Blue Sign Route there for wayfinding purposes, or so it seems. The first time anyone rides this route, they are shocked.
[As an aside, a group of devoted local advocates (@Complete5th) have managed to gather over 1000 signatures from local residents and have presented this to the main ward councillor where this missing link is. Fingers crossed this transpires into funding to support the completion of the 5th Street Cycle Track all the way to the Elbow River. And soon, ideally before my eldest starts high school there in seven years.]
Sometimes the City does get Blue Sign Routes right. For example, we use them to connect from the Elbow River Pathway up to our kids’ elementary school. Stand-out features of our frequently used Blue Sign Route include:
- Traffic circles/mini-roundabouts instead of stop signs
- Speed humps (and not the choppy bumpy ones that are horrific on a cargo bike with a sleeping child)
- Dead end (one part of our route has been disconnected from another main road, so only bikes/pedestrians can get through there, not cars)
- Much of this route is in a playground zone (30 kph)
- Flashing lights for crossing busy Elbow Drive (to connect from the pathway to the bicycle boulevard, although the beg button is ridiculously high on the east side and ridiculously placed on the west side)
The route could use some bulb-outs to make crossings clearer (and safer for pedestrians), but what it really needs is priority ploughing when we have a snow event — something all of these routes need to make viable year-round. The last two blocks are the worst due to the dead end with traffic volumes too low to result in any ‘natural’ clearing, so we are reliant upon citizens clearing their sidewalks for that section for much of winter.
Unfortunately, Blue Sign Routes are often just wayfinding with little accommodation and there is so much room for growth here to promote direct routes for cyclists while also making neighbourhoods safer, in general, by reducing direct flow traffic from cars and slowing down overall speeds through design.
If you follow me on social media at all, especially Twitter (@thismombikes), you will have noticed that I often winge and pine over how do we enact a paradigm shift such that we alter our collective habits as a society and embrace active travel or, at the very least, are empathetic towards other people who make such a choice. It is a real curiosity of mine, something that I struggle with and desperately want to help move forward.
North America struggles with this shift. Having lived in Montréal, Vancouver, and Calgary, those are the cities that I know best. Each has its own interesting history of growing their bike culture and they have not followed the same paths. Arguably, Montréal and Vancouver are speeding past Calgary with their bike mode share numbers. I see these two cities as having fully capitalized on the bicycle boulevard idea and are now transitioning to the next level of adding more protected cycle tracks.
When I read that short passage I initially referenced from Building the Bicycle City, I was inspired because it clicked in my head that perhaps the answer is bicycle boulevards. In my opinion, bicycle boulevards were successfully used to help build bike culture in Vancouver and Montréal to a certain degree, too (things were really changing when I left in 2007). And I am on board with them being a way to grow bike culture in Calgary and other cities because I trust the Dutch.
Other than possibly losing small amounts of residential parking, bicycle boulevards pose little threat and lots of gain to local residents as they help to reduce through-traffic in their neighbourhoods and force people driving to turn more frequently thereby reducing speeds and improving safety for all, especially less predictable children. They are budget-friendly as they can be implemented extremely cheaply at first, if necessary, and beautified over time: every city has access to ugly Jersey barriers; in Calgary, we have this neat product called a T.C. curb (depending on who you talk with the abbreviation stands for ‘traffic calming’ or are the initials of the guy who invented them, Tony Churchill, and they are more affectionately known as ‘butter pats’). Put these things together in combination with a few signs and the odd more expensive half- or full-signals for crossing busier streets and, voilà, bicycle boulevard.
I think one of the biggest fears of building a bicycle boulevard just off of a busy arterial is that the gold standard cycle track will never get built on said arterial. It might be true, but it doesn’t have to be. What I’m starting to realize is true is that even that beautiful cycle track is rendered useless if residents can’t safely ride in their own neighbourhoods or to a friend’s. It’s like having a highway network for cars but no roads in between. Or a ski hill with green runs but too much blue and black in between to make it work get neighbourhoods connected to bigger networks, such as cycle tracks and pathways. Each neighbourhood can have multiple bicycle boulevards between its arterials. And, possibly more importantly, if we build bike culture, we increase the appetite for cycle tracks.
Another critique is that we know what nearly perfect is: pathways and cycle tracks; routes protected from cars. So, why implement anything less? For three reasons:
- We need to grow our bike culture.
- We need neighbourhood connections, not just arterials.
- Bike boulevards done well can be excellent (and the Dutch have them, too).
The kicker here for our snowy climate is that cycle tracks are relatively simple to clear if they are a consistent width and we already have the tools to do so. Calgary’s current pseudo-bicycle boulevard system, the Blue Sign Routes are not ranked priority one for ploughing which renders many of them useless after a snow event, impeding some for days and forcing many riders to the citizen-cleared sidewalks for the bulk of the season on others — or resulting in residents hanging up their bikes until consistently dry roads again late spring. From what I have heard, turning regular streets on a grid into a maze for cars — which is perfect for bicycle boulevards — is a challenge to plough, especially the ‘dead end’ (for cars only) stubs that really make bicycle boulevards tick. However, I did say challenge and not impossible: where there is a will, there is a way. What we currently lack to make that happen is political will which results in appropriate budget allocations to pave way for effective decision-making.
The other thing for Calgary is that I am not confident that we can call them bicycle boulevards because the political climate right now means that most things with the reference to a bicycle in them means sudden death for the project or position. Greenways may be appropriate, but while green is positively associated with calm and parks it is also deeply connected with environmentalism, another topic that can irrationally push some towards rage. What would you suggest? On this note, would our cycle tracks have had better uptake if we had dubbed them on-street pathways (since Calgarians of all political leanings just love pathways)?
We need bicycle boulevards even if we have cycle tracks on arterials. So why not build them now? They help all citizens, not just cyclists. And I believe that if done well (i.e. not just blue signs in Calgary), they will attract a whole host of people curious about cycling. Perhaps it’s just seasonally, at first, but that is okay because more people biking is simply better.
After travelling to the Netherlands in June 2019, we rode on a lot of bicycle boulevards, painted bike lanes, and shared use lanes. I was completely surprised at how much “just paint” infrastructure we rode (although there it’s less paint and more red asphalt). There were also kilometres of pathways, as well as cycle tracks in busier cities. So far as I’m concerned, the reason that “just paint” works there is because it is done well and because there is empathy for all road users. I believe that a way to build this type of empathy — truly a cultural shift in paradigm — is to start with bicycle boulevards. Bicycle boulevards can lead to increased bike mode share. Increased bike mode share can lead to more gold standard infrastructure: cycle tracks and pathways.
I trust Mirjam Boorsboom and if she says that bicycle boulevards are the way to go, I believe it.
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